Kumar Galhotra is what you might call the right man for the job, and the job happens to be one of the toughest in the entire auto industry.
Galhotra runs Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand. Since roughly 2013, the brand has been attempting to stage a comeback, with billions in funding from the mothership in Dearborn, Michigan.
Born in India, Galhotra – who has a degree in engineering from the University of Michigan – came to Ford in 1988 and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the vice president who oversaw how all Ford and Lincoln vehicles were screwed together. In 2014, Ford CEO Mark Fields tapped him to take on the Lincoln challenge, promoting him to president of the marque.
Founded in 1917 by Henry Leland, one of the most successful automotive entrepreneurs of the early 20th century, Lincoln was a magnificent American brand for almost its entire history. Leland had also started Cadillac, selling it to General Motors in 1902 for the then vast sum of $4.5 million. Premium cars were Leland’s specialty, along with a Roaring Twenties version of mergers and acquisitions: Lincoln went to Ford in 1922.
In the mid-1950s, when the US auto industry was at its postwar apex, Lincoln created the iconic Continental. The 1961 Continental is one of the most famous cars ever designed, distinguished by its rear suicide doors and its sober avoidance of flash. It was as close a big four-door could come to being a perfectly tailored tuxedo. It announced itself with reserve. The ’61 Continental was powerful, but there was almost no point in driving it fast. It wanted to cruise along in an aura of serene self-confidence.
Enter the Navigator
In the late ’90s, Lincoln gave birth to its first large luxury SUV, the Navigator. That massive vehicle capitalized on the SUV boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, when gas prices fell in defiance of earlier predictions that Middle East oil supplies would dry up, spawning a permanent gas crisis that would make the crunches of the 1970s look tame by comparison.
The Continental had been associated with the national well-being of the Kennedy years, and in many respects the Navigator was the Continental of the Clinton administration. It brought a new level of finish to the large yet utilitarian SUVs that Ford had considerable expertise in building.
Customers who never would have looked twice at the Expedition snapped up Navigators, which were marketed using jazzy TV commercials and smoothly urbane imagery that profitably overrode any hesitation over the sheer size of the vehicle, one of the biggest on the road.
Lincoln was selling a quarter of a million cars and SUVs annually in the late ’90s, but that would turn out to be a peak for the brand, which then fell into a seemingly terminal decline. For one, gas prices began rising again in the mid-2000s, and the bottom fell out of the SUV market. A wave of hybrids took the US market by storm, led by the Toyota Prius. The Prius won the 2000s, while gas-guzzling hulks like the Navigator lost.
By the time gas prices in California hit almost $5 a gallon in 2009, it was widely assumed that luxury SUVs like the Navigator and Cadillac’s Escalade were woolly mammoths headed for extinction. The market shift was a disaster for the Lincoln brand, which couldn’t compete with the German luxury triumvirate of Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.
Lincoln wasn’t matching up against the Japanese, either: Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti were hanging with the Germans. Lexus was a first choice with many buyers, and seemed to have figured out how to beat the Germans at their own game. Acura and Infiniti were “second-tier” luxury brands, but even the seconds were stronger than Lincoln, which was barely on anyone’s radar.
Cadillac, meanwhile, had set about reinventing itself with a new radically angular, Stealth-fighter-inspired art-and-science design vocabulary, which endeared the brand to customers who wanted something more aggressive than what BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus were selling. Caddy wasn’t moving a lot of product but its cars stood out.
By the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, Lincoln had almost no brand identity left. The austerely sexy Continentals of the 1960s were a distant memory; the nameplate left the lineup in 2002, but by then the JFK associations had been replaced by the impression that Continentals were driven by livery-cab guys in New York City and hadn’t had a whiff of the country club in decades. A certain retro vibe had kept Lincoln afloat – barely. It was the brand of some aging hipsters and Hollywood coolios, making an appearance in the opening credits for the HBO bromantic series “Entourage” and oozing Rat Pack authenticity, particularly for the convertible versions.
But the reality of the brand was that its most important vehicle was out of favor and its sedans were both unexciting and beset with an aging customer base. The cars were perfectly competent, but unlike BMW’s or Mercedes’ sport sedans, Lincolns were throwback freeway cruisers, rebadged versions of Ford’s mass-market sedans. They came in various trim levels, to satisfy customers who might want a slightly peppier ride, but Lincoln had nothing like the high-performance M Sport or AMG divisions that amped up the cars sold by BMW and Mercedes, respectively.
Even Cadillac had a “V” designation for its high-performance division and was taking its cars to the legendary Nürburgring racetrack in Germany to vindicate their speed and handling. For all practical purposes, Lincoln had been left behind by this league when the Navigator ceased to carry the weight of the brand. By 2010, Lincoln was seen as competing with Buick, GM’s “near luxury” marque.
To top it all off, Ford was lagging behind GM, Toyota, VW, and the main German luxury brands in China, widely considered to be the world’s second most important market for autos, after the US. (Europe in the aggregate is larger than the US, but also fragmented, with some countries providing better customer bases than others; growth in Europe has also been relatively flat over the past decade and half, leading Ford and others to make ill-advised forays into the Russian market.) Bolstering the Ford brand in China was critical for the carmaker, but it couldn’t afford to be a bit player in the exceptionally profitable luxury space.
In 2016, Mark Fields dropped by Business Insider for an interview and explained the luxury stakes for Lincoln. In the US alone, he said, luxury can make up 13% of the entire industry and upwards of 9% worldwide. “But is represents over a third of the profits,” he added.
That’s a datapoint that’s impossible to ignore. If Ford let Lincoln go, it would become the only major global carmaker without a luxury brand, because it had shed its premium portfolio as part of then-CEO Alan Mulally’s pre-financial crisis home-improvement plan. Some global automakers are of course luxury brands first – BMW, Mercedes – and some like Ferrari, after its 2015 IPO, are independent. But Ford’s competition – GM, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and even Hyundai and Kia – all maintain luxury marques in their stables.
Lincoln was going through its roughest patch ever. But without it, Ford could be giving up billions in revenue and profits.
By 2010, after the worst of the financial crisis had passed, Ford was stuck with a tough call: Fix Lincoln? Or let the brand go? The Mercury brand was rolled up in 2011, leaving Ford with nothing to take into battle against Buick. If Lincoln went away as well, the core Ford brand would be all that remained.
Mulally wanted to put Lincoln out of its misery, and many auto-industry commentators leaned that way as well. He had already released Ford from the responsibility of managing its portfolio of foreign luxury brands: Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and Aston Martin.
In doing so he was following a playbook written by none other than Mark Fields, head of Ford’s North American business. Fields oversaw the all-important US market and had developed a plan to streamline Ford and force it into more reliable profitability. Fields titled his plan the “Way Forward,” and he thought it might get him the nod as CEO. But the Ford board of directors went for Mulally, leaving Fields in an awkward position: watch as someone else took over his master vision, or become a willing and loyal colonel in the new general’s army.
Fields chose what was best for Ford, not Fields, and went on to become an executive who was ideally positioned to both vacuum up everything he could learn from Mulally and work on convincing the former Boeing man what he thought was really right for a global car company. (Mullaly had come to Ford in an unexpected move from the planemaker before the 2008 financial crisis hit.)
Keeping Lincoln was one of those things that Fields thought was right. The brand has him to thank for its existence.
And so there was Galhotra in March 2016, standing on a rotating dais at a cool event space in Manhattan’s West Chelsea art-gallery district to introduce Lincoln’s newest lineup. The cars drove out from behind a scrim, up a ramp, and onto the dais, accompanied by a few quick licks from a jazz combo. It was pure auto-industry theater, presented to journalists eating a three-course dinner – some of the same journalists who might have been calling for Lincoln’s demise a few years earlier.
Galhotra was at ease in the role of Lincoln’s impresario, more so than he had been a year earlier, when at the 2015 New York Auto Show the carmaker had nabbed useful attention by revealing its Continental concept car. Galhotra seemed slightly less confident then in Lincoln’s new tagline, “quiet luxury,” and the brand’s capacity to embody the suave reserve of that message. He had come across as someone still practicing the message, although he certainly looked the part: trim, in tailored suits and a small Lincoln badge pin in his lapel, and speaking in impeccable, complete sentences.
But the 2015 Continental concept was, no question, something. It was blue – very blue – inside and out. It was also big. Lincoln had brought what was effectively a limo to New York, to fulfill the demand that the brand bring back its most famous nameplate and signal that it was ready to move aggressively into the China market, where affluent car owners don’t drive but are driven.
For Galhotra, it must have been a difficult car to stand next to and talk up the virtues of quiet luxury. So far the new Continental – and the new Lincoln – had conveyed anything but quiet. For one thing, a group of television spots for Lincoln, meant to showcase the carmaker’s compact crossover, the MKC, had gone massively viral.
They starred Matthew McConaughey, fresh off his stint on HBO’s “True Detective” series and just before he won a best actor Oscar for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Directed by the legendary indie-film auteur Gus Van Sant, the spots featured a trippy stream-of-consciousness voiceover by McConaughey, blending the gauzy existential musings of his “True Detective” character with borderline hallucinogenic meditations on the nature of moving forward and backward in time. Strange soliloquies of revival.
It didn’t seem to matter whether or not, strictly speaking, they made sense. Parodies were swiftly created by Ellen DeGeneres and “Saturday Night Live,” massively intensifying the spot’s coolness credibility and almost overnight transforming McConaughey into one of the most influential celebrity pitchmen for a car company.
These new Lincoln commercials had a subtle power in spite of their pretense. They demonstrated, almost subliminally, that quiet luxury was a preoccupation of the contemporary thinking person. And they memorably served up the idea that Lincoln was on the road to someplace different, even if initially, as Galhotra seemed to know, the destination wasn’t entirely certain.
- Lincoln Media
The actor and the role
A year after the Continental debut, Galhotra was fully inhabiting his role, preparing to unveil Lincoln’s second show-stealing concept at the 2016 New York Auto Show: the new Navigator. The Continental had been spectacular, but the Navigator was over the top, with its pair of massive gullwing doors swung up, concertina steps unfolded, and an interior inspired by luxury yachts, complete with nautical teak details.
The old Navigator was large and in charge, one of the most impressive vehicles on the road. But the fact was that the SUV had become somewhat undermined in its premium identity by its association with car services. It was the SUV you rode in to the airport, not the SUV you parked in front of your vacation house.
The immense form of the Navigator was retained in the revised model, but this one was quite literally a land yacht.
Galhotra was more than up to the task of standing next to it when its turn to roll up onto the dais arrived, right after the production version of the Continental had left the stage.
I’d met with Galhotra earlier in the day, for a mellow preview of the Navigator. He was tie-less, sitting with his lead engineer and Lincoln’s designer, David Woodhouse. The wary executive I’d encountered a year earlier, clearly feeling the pressure of a job he’d been in for only a few months, had been transformed into an almost Zen-like raconteur, a man whose neat gray hair cast him as a distinguished leader who didn’t need to seek the spotlight. The spotlight sought him.
In 2015, his chief competition had been Johan de Nysschen, the South Africa-born president of Cadillac, which had just moved its sales and marketing operations to New York City to merge GM’s own top brand with the world of global luxury. De Nysschen is a tall, booming guy, a lordly towering strategist who reminds one of the men who built the airline business in the ’50s and ’60s, like Pan Am’s Juan Trippe. He gives the impression that he’s always working, and with his two-tone Breitling watch and clipped mustache, it seems as though he was built to lead Cadillac into battle against BMW and Mercedes.
I interviewed him at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, in a massive Cadillac booth outfitted with an ersatz office suite that replicated his space in Manhattan. As I watched him stand up from behind his desk, rising from an ever-present sheaf of work, it reminded me that some executives need a gigantic office simply to suit the scale of their expectations.
Galhotra is more low-key. He doesn’t exactly speak quietly, but he doesn’t raise his voice, either. Instead, he gradually increases the amplification, depending on the occasion, like a musician slowly upping the volume as a composition heads for its crescendo.
De Nysschen is a robust-handshake type, but Galhotra is firm and lingering, drawing you in. He knows the trick of speaking just softly enough to compel you to stand closer, without ever losing a word. He’s like a diplomat, the ambassador from a country called “Lincoln.” He can loosen up a bit, lose the necktie – even though it doesn’t look entirely right – but it’s hard to picture him wearing anything besides a slim, European-cut suit that nevertheless evokes the Detroit of the 1960s. He specializes in sly smiles, while De Nysschen relies on hearty guffaws. If you worked for either man, you wouldn’t want them mad at you, but they’d express their displeasure in diametrically opposed ways.
Catching up with Cadillac
By early 2016, Galhotra had no meaningful displeasure to express. The Lincoln revival was in full swing, and the automaker was picking up the pace in China. Sales lagged Cadillac by roughly seven to one, but as one of GM’s key China brands (along with Buick), Cadillac had a substantial head start. On balance, Lincoln was making up ground in a hurry, and it had an almost perfect mix of vehicles, unlike Caddy, which in the US was still trying to take it to BMW 3- and 5-Series sedans.
In 2015, when Lincoln was breaking out the Continental “quiet luxury” concept, Cadillac had hosted a party of epic scale at a pier in Brooklyn to introduce its CT6 sedan. It was the most extravagant auto-show shindig I’d ever attended. The flower arrangements were as big as the car, and the attendees were representative of the art-and-fashion crowd that Cadillac wanted to associate with the brand. R&B artist Raphael Saadiq provided the entertainment. And there was a distinct absence of the usual bearded middle-aged auto-journalist set. Instead, chic scenesters ruled the bars and gourmet-food lines. It was more like an elite music festival in Monaco.
- David McNew/Getty Images
The BMW fight was an old one – Cadillac had the Bavarians in its sights for decades, trying to prove to customers that Caddys weren’t grandpa cruisers and pimpmobiles. The brand worked hard to shake off its soft, chrome-laden aura of the 1970s for some bold 0-60 mph times and eye-watering engine specs. Cadillacs were even taking it to the racetrack, competing in a sports car class. But as De Nysschen said during our interview, the portfolio was off. He needed crossovers, and although the Cadillac XT5 arrived in 2016, Lincoln had more of these versatile vehicles to sell, at a time when sedan sales were tanking.
This was a substantial positive for Lincoln in China, where the market was shaping up to look at lot like it did in the US – just bigger. In 2016, 17.5 million new cars and truck sales in the US was a record, but the China market was already doing 20 million by then, with some very bullish analysts predicted that it could climb as high as 40 million as the vast population began to mirror the rest of the world’s percentages for car ownership.
So Galhotra’s task was twofold: Revive the Lincoln brand in the US and establish it in China. By 2016, the objectives were in place and the execution phase was underway. The plan called for dozens of new dealerships and a clear canting of Continental and Navigator toward limo duty. The impressive thing about many of the interior features of both vehicles, at the concept stage, was that most would make it to the production versions.
There is a difference between the way American and Chinese see large sedans and SUVs. Americans drive themselves. When it comes to big sedans, they want horsepower, comfort, and legroom, but they don’t much care if the back seat emulates their living rooms. On the SUV side, the want all the same, but more, with utility thrown in: room for pets and gear and the ability to facilitate an outdoorsy lifestyle.
The Navigator concept may have looked like the sort of thing that Beyoncé would saunter out of in a music video, but Galhotra emphasized that the truck has impressive towing capacity, a land yacht that could tow one intended for the water. Chinese customers haven’t yet crossed that recreational Rubicon – the wealthy rural gentlemen who likes his Navigator because of its style and its ability to transport his horses to dressage competitions hasn’t yet found his counterpart in the Middle Kingdom.
Galhotra had every reason to believe that he eventually would, however. That’s why he insisted on the Navigator’s ongoing importance for the brand. Strategically, Lincoln needs a big SUV to go along with the full-size Continental sedan to be fully competitive in the Chinese luxury market.
- Hollis Johnson
Getting it right in China
Getting the product mix and features right in China is just part of the battle. Unlike GM with Buick, Lincoln is a new arrival in the Chinese market for Ford. There are advantages with this: Lincoln has a blank slate in the country. Luxury-car buyers don’t know the brand, and so Lincoln is free of its stodgy American associations. On the other hand, the Chinese luxury market has been treated as a gold rush by Western carmakers. Lincoln, a near-luxury brand in the US, is billing itself as a true luxury brand in China, taking on the most well-known and established marques in the world, all while lacking Buick’s history.
As dowdy as Buick had seemed as a brand before the financial crisis, an “old person’s'” car in reputation with a 65-plus ownership base to boot, this was still the car that China’s last emperor, Henry Pu Yi, had owned during his reign from the early 20th century until just before the end of World War I. The brand carries immense weight in China to this day; it punches well above its weight.
So the challenge for Lincoln, which lacks Buick’s roots and BMW’s global name recognition, is daunting, but many aspects of Lincoln’s new brand makeup will allow it to ease more seamlessly into the Chinese market than carmakers that have organized their identities around high-performance.
High-performance means big engines, for the most part, and big engines are a problem in China. There’s room for 500-plus-horsepower sport sedans, but the bulk of engines produced in the country must be smaller in displacement. Lincoln’s V6s fit better into this paradigm. Lincoln also isn’t marketing itself anywhere as the car for the demanding driver. The “theory,” so to speak, that supports the brand is about comfort, ease, and service – all values that Chinese buyers are looking for.
Galhotra is always quick to point out that Lincoln’s customers have little to no interest in the technical specifications that thrill the gearhead readers of Motor Trend. For them, “performance” isn’t measured in 0-60 mph but rather in how smooth and powerful a car feels when accelerating up an on-ramp. And luxury isn’t necessarily measured in how glitzy their car is but rather in how the vehicle envelops driver and passengers and creates a respite from the stresses of everyday life.
China is a Bizarro World for Western luxury brands in several other respects.
For starters, the German carmakers – Mercedes, BMW, Audi – are considered the choice of older people and dreary business types. They’re cursed by decades of success in the luxury realm and serve as brands for younger Chinese buyers to react against.
“Mercedes, BMW, even Audi, skew more towards businessmen,” a 26-year-old Chinese buyer, Ge Di, told Reuters in 2016. “The comfort level is a bit higher, but as a young person I care more about performance and design.”
So if the luxury market is extremely codified and hierarchical in the US, with Mercedes, BMW, and Toyota’s Lexus at the top, Audi knocking at the door, and everyone else fighting for share in the tiers below, the Chinese luxury market is far more fluid and subject to the changing tastes of a younger population that wants to define itself against expectations.
This all serves to give Lincoln plenty of hope in its newest competitive forum. You could easily say that Lincoln’s revival is undergirded by the considerations of the Chinese luxury market first and foremost.
Not that it will be easy.
Auto sales in China topped 21 million vehicles in 2015, but according to Bloomberg, only about 2 million of those sales are luxury cars and SUVs, versus 12% in the US.
Most of the Chinese luxury market in 2016 was divvied up among the Germans, with Audi, BMW, and Mercedes accounting for 75% of annual sales, based on research from Bloomberg Intelligence. Cadillac and Volvo had a combined 4%, and Lincoln was beginning its ascent with a meager 1%.
Of course it could be worse. Lincoln could have zero.
Will it work?
The story of Lincoln is one of the best to emerge in the aftermath of the financial crisis. It has everything: a rich and varied history, a certain amount of Frank and Dino cool mixed with a whiff of sexy Kennedy-era dissoluteness, a near-death experience, a tentative recovery that at first looked unpromising but that took off with the unexpected McConaughey commercials, and finally the suave, low-key sales pitch, a relaxing of muscles when everyone else is flexing.
Ford has abundant confidence that this will work, but Lincoln has more than a mountain to climb. The luxury market in the US is crowded, and even though Lincoln has made admirable progress in reversing its fortunes, most consumers don’t consider it a true contemporary luxury brand, in the vein on its German and Japanese rivals.
Lincoln benefits from nostalgia from a time in America before BMW and Mercedes arrived in force, when cars from Germany were considered “imports” and the Japanese hadn’t yet shown up with their small, plucky, fuel-efficient vehicles. Here and there, you had the odd Italian roadster and few Jaguars, Triumphs, MGs, and Aston Martins. Otherwise, as far as the eye could see, it was American iron laying claim to the new interstate highways and the fresh driveways of burgeoning suburban enclaves. A cupholder in 1965 was that space between your legs. More important were the Lincoln Continental’s legion of ashtrays.
So the circle that Galhotra and Fields are struggling to square implies a daunting balancing act: preserve that peculiar Lincoln mystique without allowing the brand to be a throwback. The effort comes through every time Lincoln shows a new vehicle. The interior of the Navigator concept that landed in Detroit may resemble something from the sixties, but Lincoln’s designers and executives don’t want to hear you make that observation. They would prefer that the legacy of the brand be as quiet as its take on luxury.
So far, so good
It’s a fair bet that they’ll succeed. Having seen many leaders of automotive divisions at American car companies over the years, I’d be hard pressed to conjure up someone as ideally suited to his role as Galhotra. He sets a highly cosmopolitan tone for the brand, sacrificing just enough of the traditional car-guy vibe to win over the large number of buyers who find car guys exhausting, with their endless enthusing over the specs and stats and macho aspects of driving.
Performance matters more in the luxury market, but not that much more. Galhotra’s emphasis is on the Gestalt of his cars and trucks, they way they anticipate owner needs and create a welcoming and calming environment. The man is, by the way, an engineer’s engineer, so he can talk cylinder displacement and compression ratios and torque bands with the best of them. But in an echo of Cary Grant’s definition of a gentleman as someone who could play the bagpipes, but declined, Galhotra can do all that but chooses not to.
The big question, of course, is whether Lincoln can achieve the most difficult feat in the auto industry: “conquesting” the loyal customers of less retro brands. As lovely as the Continental is, it doesn’t have an owner base (unless you count the hipsters who are still maintaining a vintage example). Lincoln is starting from scratch, pitching the big sedan at customers who might lean reflexively in the direction of Lexus.
By early 2016, the process was moving along nicely. Lincoln’s sales were advancing at an impressive double-digit pace, propelled by the crossovers in the portfolio – the right cars at the right time. The executive team was clearly clicking, and Mark Fields took the occasion of the New York Auto Show to unleash a C-suite Lincoln-palooza, making the brand and its revival one of his central talking points, alongside Ford’s other major initiative, the transformation of the company from a maker of cars to a provider of mobility in all its forms.
By the time the New York show rolled around in March 2016, Ford had become an automaker standing on four pillars. The core brand, symbolized by the full-size pickups and Mustang, was strong, a vindication of Mulally’s vision.
Ford’s new performance division was taking its GT supercar racing, making sure that the halo car was proving itself on the track. (It would make history with an epic win in its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a near-repeat of Ford’s legendary 1-2-3 victory in 1966.)
A host of transformational programs were also being inculcated, and Ford would boast in early 2016 of having the largest fleet of self-driving cars under testing in the industry.
Finally, Lincoln was back in the game. As much as the recovery of the core Ford brand had shown that Mulally was a magician, the Lincoln comeback indicated that Fields could make calls that were risky but right.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this complete reinvigoration of Ford and its brands was that the company could shift its rhetoric from that of a slightly shell-shocked but foresighted survivor to that of a proud automaker with more than a century of history under its belt. In 2009 Ford was suffering from being an American company; by 2016 it relished that title.
- Bill Pugliano/Getty IMages
Timing is everything, and luck matters
Fields also knew that some of the unlikely success that Lincoln was experiencing could be chalked up to timing and luck. When the call was made to keep the brand alive, no one could have foreseen that gas prices would plummet in 2015, boosting the balance sheets of any automaker that had SUVs and crossover to sell.
When the first McConaughey ads hit, their druggy, meandering meditations and improvised art-film quality made sense, as a daring bet to kick-start the brand. Once their impact was felt, however, the marketing plan became more conservative. The moodiness was out, and there would be no more seemingly random encounters with wandering bulls on vacant Texas roads, as there had been with the first batch.
Later spots that aired in 2015 concentrated on their vehicles and normalized the character McConaughey was playing. He didn’t just drive around aimlessly as a freestyle stoner-philosopher, a spacey specialist in the craft of unearthing deep thoughts that had a sideways relationship to Lincoln and its comeback. Instead, he got dressed for a late-night poker game or took his dogs out for sushi, or found sunwashed vistas in Los Angeles to scrutinize. Some of the evocative danger, the threat that can attach to empty Western landscapes, slipped away, replaced of necessity by a more straightforward sales pitch.
In the end, however, the improved sales number and the respectable progress in China spoke for themselves. It could have been that Lincoln had located a sort of inadvertent sweet spot, a lacuna in the luxury market in the US that needed to be filled and an opportunity beckoning in China to introduce a fresh new brand with an identity that differed meaningfully from everyone else.
The demographics are in Lincoln’s favor. The biggest challenge for a near-luxury brand, especially one suffering from the lingering hangover of its glory days in the mid-’60s, bigger than taking on the mighty Germans, bigger than overcoming a once-in-a-generation financial crisis, is finding younger customers.
Long term, the amusing old observation goes, we’re all dead. This is fine for a brand if your customers are replaced as loyalists head for their final reward. But for Lincoln, the customer base had by the 2000s shifted to a familiar place for big American cars: They were aging fast.
By the mid-2010s, however, Lincoln had improved that – dramatically.
“Our fastest-growing group is 25 to 44,” Galhotra told me. He chalked this up to an important practical lifestyle change for younger buyers: “They just need more space.”
After years of dire prognostications in and around the auto industry about millennials not buying cars – because they had no job, no credit, no families – it now appears that the youngest Americans, as soon as they have any economic power, are taking the car-buying plunge. Typical factors are driving this: They have access to better jobs and an improved credit outlook. As their financial picture improves they are getting busy with family formation and an inevitable move from crowded cities to roomier suburbs. And finally they are showing a rising enthusiasm for car culture.
Ford, always a carmaker with a youthful streak – the Mustang was created explicitly for the young people of the ’60s – is positioning itself to grab these buyers. And Lincoln is positioning itself to nab them if they think they need a bit more luxury than what the Ford marque has on offer, especially when it comes to crossovers and SUVs.
It’s working better that anyone could have expected.
By the 2016, Galhotra looked as though he’d hit his stride. And Lincoln, for the first time since the late ’90s, looked like it was ready to run.